The modern economy is built on addiction

27 December 2021

8:23 PM

27 December 2021

8:23 PM

Two stories, side-by-side in theSunday paper I was looking at online. The first — ‘Strip Dame Dopesick ofher title’ — was a report that the families of victimsof opioid addiction were campaigning for Dame Theresa Sackler,whose family profited unimaginably from marketing addictive legalpainkillers, to be stripped of her title. The second was the story ofhow the writer and TV presenter Richard Osman had spoken on BBCRadio Four of struggling with an addiction to crisps, chocolate andbiscuits for four decades. He compared his relationship with food toan alcoholic’s with booze: ‘The addiction is identical.’

There’s a school of thought thatwill see no connection between these stories; that thinks it ridiculous tocompare a luminary of light-entertainment struggling toresist scoffing a four-pack of MarsBars with a jonesing OxyContin addict or a long-haulalky shuddering into withdrawal in a locked ward. There is, indeed, a school ofthought that thinks there’s no such thing as addiction at all — that it’ssimply a failure of willpower or backbone or self-control, amedicalised alibi for selfishness. And, sure, it’s true thataddiction is a tricky concept to pin down — but you’d have to be proofagainst observable reality to think that it does not exist. Nor thatbeing the host of Pointless can insulateyou against it, or the seeming innocuousness of crisps and chocolate makethem proof against becoming the objects of dependency and abuse.

To me, one of the most poignantpassages in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience ishis description of finding his father, mouth so crammed with sweeties he lookedlike a basketball. What, Martin asked, was going on? ‘It took him aboutten minutes of disciplined mastication before he could reply. “Seems to calm medown,” he said, and started loading up again. He ate for comfort; thetranquillising effects of starch and glucose helped to allay fear.’

I write as one who has had hisown brush with the booze (three years sober, ho ho: send Crunchie Rocks); andwhose breakfast vodka habit gave way sinuously tocheap chocolate, nicotine, videogames and anything else that can givea bang of dopamine or a moment out of time. You don’t know whatdignity in recovery looks like till you’ve seen me get on the outsideof a family-size bar of Dairy Milk Marvellous Creations. Bet I’d havegone like gangbusters for OxyContin if it had crossed my path.Addiction isn’t fussy. Your best bet, if you ask me, is to switch tosomething that kills you slowly rather than quickly.

There was a time when peoplethought addiction more or less inhered in a substance (heroin: veryaddictive; celery: less so) and, in talking about ‘addictivepainkillers’ above, I’ve used that shorthand. Then they wonderedabout patterns of genetic predisposition, about addictsprocessing substances differently, about addiction asa ‘disease’ that marked the drunk or the junkie as separate fromthe blessed herd of the normal. No dice there either. The twelve-steporthodoxy that alcoholics are marked by an ‘allergy’ tobooze (a ‘doctor’s opinion’ from the 1930s) may be therapeuticallyeffective but, as I understand it, it’s medical nonsense.

It certainly seems to be truethat it’s easier to become dependent on heroin than celery; but that may bebecause the former answers a particular need in theaddict more directly and powerfully than the latter, rather thanbecause it has a special chemical property called addictiveness.

It doesn’t even have tobe a substance. It can be a behaviour — gambling, gaming,self-harm, debt, sex, jogging.

It’s a behaviour that seeks tomedicate fear, sorrow, boredom, regret,anomie, heartbreak, or the existential heebie-jeebies: take yourpick. That desire — the desire to take your eye off the ball for a bit — is not unique to people we think of as addicts. You can call it aspiritual condition, or a neurological one, or a psychological one… or youcould see it as, in one form or another, a universal. Looked atthat way, the difficulty isn’t finding a wide enough definition of addictionto encompass both the victims of Sackler profiteering and the authorof The Thursday Murder Club; it’sfinding a narrow enough definition to make them significantly differentfrom the rest of us.

The mechanisms of addiction — craving, overconsumption, dependence, shame and furtiveness, thechasing of irretrievable or imaginary highs, the diminishing returns of the oldreward loop — are not just a weird deviation from the norm. Theyare the norm. They’re what the modern economy — and not justthe Sackler fortune — is built on. The biggest tech companies inthe world are built on the psychology of addiction: the craving for thatnext notification, that like, that retweet, the ping of an incoming email,the not-quite fulfilment of dinging another level on Candy Crush. Andthey’re just vanguard refinements in the limitless digitalspace of an economy already built on the queasy high of retailtherapy, fast fashion and sugar-laden ‘treats’. Whatsocial science graduates of a certain stripe like to call ‘late capitalism’depends on creating new and impossible to satisfy desires, and it isextremely good at it. There’s no twelve-step treatment for it, either.

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